The Great Sampson was a magician without peer. Five thousand shows in a hundred grimy towns and he never complained. The stiffs working the carnival regarded him with a mixture of wonder and derision.
“And now,” the Great Sampson waved, “my final act!”
A few people in the dingy tent regarded the theatrical old man. They were thinking about home. In a few minutes night would fall. Other sideshow tents were already being hastily dismantled, folded up. The Great Sampson, in his black top hat, had picked up a thin book covered with gold lettering and had shakily climbed into an open black box that resembled a coffin.
The old man ran his fingers through an ebony beard, which he had obviously curled and dyed. He opened the shining book as he faced the audience: several bored adults and one boy.
“Until this very moment,” he announced grandly, “no magician in the entire history of the world has actually performed magic. Illusion and deception have been substituted for magic, and millions of believers have been told by deceitful entertainers that they are witnessing the effects of true supernatural power. You, my good friends, will be the first to ever witness real magic. You will remember this day for the remainder of your lives. So pay very close attention. Don’t blink!”
The Great Sampson took a deep breath. He hesitated. He visibly trembled. “And now, after years of struggle, after years of false starts and dead ends, after years and years of searching: my life’s greatest and only worthwhile achievement!”
He held up the shining book with gold lettering and read: “Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum!”
The Great Sampson vanished.
The carnival sideshow audience stood with jaded expectation on the crushed dirt floor.
The people waited patiently for a minute, then two.
A man in back finally slipped out of the dark tent.
A couple near the black box shrugged, laughed and left.
Everyone forsook the black box except the boy. In that shadow of doubt he didn’t dare move.
Something terrible–something extraordinary had happened. The boy could sense it. A shivering thrill fixed his feet in place.
Summoning courage, he inched forward, leaned slowly over, and peered into the box.
Skittering nervously at its bottom, a gray mouse was frantically trying to escape.
The boy’s heart pounded. His mind raced.
“Show’s over,” boomed a voice behind him. A carnival worker’s face was poking into the dark tent with a glare of impatience. “Time to go home kid.”
“But what about the Great Sampson?” the boy protested.
“What about who?”
The boy was indignant. “The Great Sampson is gone!”
“You need to be gone, too. Now get the hell out of here or someone might call the cops.” The worker shot him a exasperated look and left.
The boy hesitated. Nothing that had just happened–the magician’s strange speech–that split second when he had vanished–none of it seemed real.
The boy remained alone in the tent, looking down at the small helpless mouse. He had to decide. Quickly. He reached into the black box and took the mouse gently into his hand and slipped out of the tent into the twilight. The carnival was over. Indistinct lumps of canvas littered the ground.
The soft mouse in his hand had calmed down. The boy saw a man heaving plastic garbage bags onto a flatbed truck and hurried over.
“I think I know what happened to the Great Sampson!”
“What happened? What the hell are you talking about?”
“The Great Sampson disappeared about ten minutes ago! He was doing his very last magic show and I think he actually turned into a mouse. He said it was his final act! He said he would finally do real magic!”
“Get the fuck out of here. You’re crazy.” The man turned back to the garbage.
. . .
As the boy walked rapidly home, he stared frequently through his fingers at the mouse. It seemed to be an ordinary gray mouse.
He slowed at the grassy park several blocks from his home, and he sat down on the bench in the lamp’s soft light. He opened his hand just enough to closely examine the mouse. It seemed perfectly ordinary. “Can you hear me?” the boy asked.
The nervous mouse looked about, seemingly at nothing.
“If you can hear me, let me know. Do something. Nod your head.”
The mouse’s head quivered. It looked up at the boy.
“I don’t know what to do. Are you really the Great Sampson? Can you turn back? Are you going to turn back?”
No answer. None was possible.
“If that was really your final act–” The boy looked at the mouse feeling puzzled, hopeless. “Why did you do it?
“So you wanted to do real magic? Why? To become something different?”
He leaned sideways to pull an object from his back pocket. It was the strange shining book with gold lettering. It had also remained at the bottom of the box.
The book appeared to be a journal. It was the type of cheap mass-produced journal that anybody can buy for a couple dollars at a store. The boy read elegant gold letters on the cover. They formed the words: Follow Your Dreams.
. . .
Sitting on the bed in his room, still holding the mouse in one hand, the boy opened the thin journal. Its few pages were handwritten in black ink, clearly and elegantly. Page after page after page, with an occasional word or sentence neatly crossed out. Page after page. It seemed to be the life’s work of one person.
With one hand he clumsily turned the pages until he reached the last, where his eyes froze on the final words: Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum. Those had been the final words spoken by the Great Sampson. The fatal incantation. The final words.
Were they really magic?
He mouthed a few of the dangerous words inaudibly, a shiver crawling up his back, then stopped.
A very loud knock on his bedroom door.
“What are you doing” demanded his mother. “I called you for dinner five minutes ago!”
“Just a second.”
“I’m running out of patience–you come out of there now!” His mother burst into the room. “What on Earth have you been doing?”
“Nothing.” He turned and quickly placed the mouse in a drawer by his bed.
“Well, come on. You know how your father doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Reluctantly, the boy stepped out of his room and headed for the stairs. Turning back, he saw his mother enter his room.
. . .
The mouse was gone.
Whether his mother had found it, or the mouse had escaped, the boy couldn’t know. It didn’t matter.
He lay on his bed, almost in tears. He didn’t know why.
Of course, it all was plain silly. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as real magic. The Great Sampson was gone, that was the only thing that mattered. The Great Sampson had performed his final act. And nobody really cares about an act. Everything in life is an act.
The boy picked up the thin book with glittery lettering.
He didn’t dare open it.
He placed it on his bookshelf, among other wise books he would probably never read.
Perhaps he’d read it one day.